Flash-based drives may soon be as cheap as the spinning kind

2 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

HDDs, SSDs Grow Seasonally to 143 Exabytes: TRENDFOCUS 3rd Calendar Quarter Analysis.

Solid-state drives are superior to hard drives in every way but one: they’re faster, lighter, and less fragile, but they’re also more expensive. Solid State Drives (SSDs), the natural evolution of the hard drive (HDD), may finally be about to kill off their forebears as their prices continue to drop.TRENDFOCUS recently released its latest quarterly analysis, which showed that 143 exabytes of HDD and SSD capacity shipped in CQ3 on a total of 145 million units. According to research by TrendForce and DRAMeXchange, the end of this year marks the fourth straight quarter in which SSD prices have fallen above 10%.

Suddenly, we had on our hands a new bunch of drives that, while being much faster, much smaller and totally silent, still used the same SATA connectors as our mechanical and optical drives, and were often mounted in the same drive tray as regular 3.5in drives. According to a report by TrendForce, SSD prices per gigabyte have been making a cliff-like graph over the last few years: from 99 cents a gigabyte in 2012, we’re down to 39 cents. This has prompted two big predictions for 2016: 256GB SSDs and HDDs will be close to price parity, and more than 30% of manufactured laptops will feature an SSD. That’s exactly what you’d expect from a technology starting to come of age; the interesting thing is that hard drive prices have stayed more or less the same, as you’d expect from a technology that’s been around for decades. In simpler terms: we are approaching a glorious storage singularity, where hard drives and SSDs cost the same, and spinning magnetic platters cease to be a thing anyone carries around.

With the SATA interface essentially at its limits, we’re currently in the midst of a transition to the next generation of solid state storage, but this time around it’s frankly a mess. If you can confidently discuss PCI-Express lanes, NVMe, M.2, AHCI, U.2, SFF-8639 and SATA Express, how they all relate to each other and what they all mean to consumers, then congratulations, and please apply for our pub quiz team. When you do something on your computer, it goes from RAM, which is super fast, like nanoseconds fast, into the CPU’s cache, which is even faster still.

We’ll take you through the latest SSD technologies, connectors and protocols so you can be clear on what they mean and how relevant they are to your next build. Within the client SSD segment, modules (mainly M.2 and ‘M.2 like’) did increase as a function of the slight rebound seen in the notebook PC market. The latest major revision of the specification allows a single SATA port to communicate with a maximum bandwidth of 6Gbps, and for ODDs and HDDs this is more than adequate. Even though we are measuring fractions of a second, that fraction of a second makes a discernable difference as to how your computer reacts when doing all things it does with storage – caching, loading, saving, indexing. PCI-E has a number of advantages – it is a well developed and versatile bus that is widely implemented and understood and has its specifications maintained by the PCI Special Interest Group that includes over 900 companies.

The top three enterprise SSD suppliers for all interface offerings, Samsung, Intel, and HGST, represented a combined total equal to 78% of all enterprise SSD units shipped in the 3rd calendar quarter. While this is simple to grasp, the confusion tends to arise because of the multitude of ways you can communicate with the PCI-E bus, both at the physical and logical levels.

HDD component markets, specifically disks and heads, recorded higher sales for the quarter; however, flattish client and nearline HDD volumes tempered growth. Looking forward, escalating storage capacities of nearline HDDs will lift disk- and head-per-drive ratios, resulting in possible supply tightness in three or four years time. Founded in 1993, the TRENDFOCUS method blends both “top down/bottom up” and 360° statistical analysis to provide clients with the exacting data sets needed to make complex decisions in today’s environment.

This sort of performance is less discernable day to day than latency, but still makes a difference when copying data around or an app or the OS deciding to read or write a bunch of data, preventing you from doing much else until it’s done. The talk of next-gen SSDs really began with the announcement and launch of Intel’s Z97 chipset, which brought along support for SATA Express and M.2 connectivity. These were standardised in the SATA 3.2 specification, which confirmed the move towards PCI-E as the interface of choice for next-gen storage for consumers.

The SATA Express host-side connector is rather long, using two standard SATA ports and an extra plug that exposes a pure connection to two PCI-E lanes, and, just like with SATA, a cable is required to connect a device to the motherboard. NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) is an all new standard designed from the ground up for SSDs and talks to the rest of the computer of over the PCIe bus. On a traditional hard drive you might set your BIOS to use the AHCI standard – using the NVMe standard instead results in better latency and using PCIe instead of SATA opens up gigabytes per second of bandwidth SATA just doesn’t have. The connection became commonplace on Z97 and X99 motherboards, typically using the PCH’s PCI-E 2.0 lanes rather than stealing bandwidth from the CPU’s PCI-E 3.0 lanes, which are nearly always routed to the standard expansion slots for graphics cards. NVMe support also requires use of the latest Z100 series chipsets from Intel, so a CPU and motherboard upgrade is required if you want to take advantage of the fastest SSDs around.

While the inclusion of SATA Express on a motherboard generally came to be seen as a good thing, as time went on and devices failed to appear it became apparent that the standard was dying before it had even gotten off the ground. While there was a demo SSD produced by Asus and a few accessories that utilise it (such as the ASRock USB 3.1 front panel adaptor), no major SSD manufacturers have thus far shown any interest in it, and its decline was all but confirmed by the release of Intel’s SSD 750 Series, which has a 2.5in SKU that uses a PCI-E 3.0 x4 interface then known as SFF-8639 and now as U.2 (more on this soon). Latency wise, it can write data in 4K blocks with only 0.021ms of latency, half as fast as a SATA based SSD and orders of magnitude faster than the practically vintage magnetic spinning disks. Thankfully, the backwards compatibility of the two SATA ports you get with a SATA Express connector meant that space on the motherboards which supported it hadn’t been wasted.

They are most commonly used in enterprise applications: the slot-based connection allows for easy hot-swapping, while the large PCB means there’s room for loads of NAND which equates to a very high capacity in a single drive. There’s also room for a heatsink, which is again more relevant to the enterprise world where drives are frequently under load for sustained periods of time. Click to enlarge – The Kingston HyperX Predator AIC is merely an M.2 SSD mounted to an AIC PCB which acts as an adaptor for users without an M.2 socket Home users and enthusiasts do have a few options here too, though they are not that common.

M.2 is the connection pretty much everyone is talking about when it comes to next-gen SSDs, and as already mentioned its spurt in popularity really began when the Z97 chipset was launched. Much like mSATA, which uses the PCI Express Mini Card form factor, M.2 devices mount directly to the host connector and are flush with the motherboard. While they have become commonplace on newer Intel desktop motherboards, this makes them especially ideal for small form factors (e.g. all-in-one PCs). For enterprise scenarios it’s less appealing as hot-swapping is not really feasible and there are potential thermal issues too since components are crammed close together without the covering of a heatsink. M.2 SATA SSDs, like the Samsung SSD 850 Evo M.2 and Crucial MX200 M.2, have hardware you’d find on a standard 2.5in SSD and are limited to 6Gbps just like any SATA SSD.

Much like DDR3 and DDR4 modules are notched in a certain position to match the host-side connector’s mating key, the M.2 standard supports notching in a variety of positions denoted by letters. The two you need to worry about for storage are the B-key and M-key positions – you may also hear about A-key and E-key M.2 devices, but these are typically used for WiFi cards and the like. For SSDs, the main ones to be concerned about are 2242, 2260, 2280 and 22110, and 2280 seems to be taking off as the standard size – it’s long enough to accommodate a decent amount of NAND on a single side and is the maximum size supported by most motherboards.

However, its size does limit the amount of power it can draw and the capacity that SSDs can reach, not to mention the potential thermal limitations and the fact that motherboards are always going to be pretty limited in the number of modules they can support. The final means of connecting a PCI-E storage device to a host is a connector that has been adopted from the enterprise space and was previously referred to as SFF-8639, but has recently been renamed to U.2 (with no relation to Bono, thankfully). On the motherboard side, however, things look very different, as U.2 is adopting the SFF-8643 or mini-SAS HD connector, which has been slightly modified for PCI-E connectivity.

The second side of the next-gen SSD coin is about the move from the Advanced Host Controller Interface (AHCI) to Non-Volatile Memory Host Controller Interface Specification (NVM Express or NVMe). SSDs are inherently highly parallel, and NVMe supports up to 65,536 command queues with up to 65,536 commands per queue compared to a single queue with up to 32 commands on AHCI. You can also use it in Windows 7, but you’ll need to download the NVMe driver separately and point the installer to it when installing as it’s not bundled natively. The two manufacturers with client NVMe SSDs, Intel and Samsung, both have their own NVMe driver that is said to boost performance but also makes more advanced features like drive monitoring, firmware upgrades and secure erase available in the Windows environment. Depending on the chipset and motherboard you own and the connector you’re using, this will have different effects (e.g. reducing available graphics bandwidth, disabling certain ports on the motherboard).

Honestly, while the cost of SSDs still far exceed HDDs on a cost per GB basis, we do think it’s reached the point where there’s no excuse for not having an SSD in any new build, even a low budget one. Even high-end gaming systems we’d say are still best suited to standard 2.5in SATA SSDs, although you might consider getting a 512GB or even a 1TB one given the size of modern game installs.

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